I’d never even heard of mirto until I read Efisio Harris’ Sweet Myrtle and Bitter Honey, which, to my mind, is the best English-language cookbook covering Sardinia — one of my favorite cuisines of Italy. Mirto is a heavy, sweet and herbal liqueur drunk all over Sardinia, at all occasions, much the way ouzo or raki is served in Greece.
With this description, I knew I had to have it. And I finally got my chance at the James Beard Awards this past spring when I saw it on the menu at Craft, Chef Tom Colicchio’s flagship restaurant. When I took a sip, the liqueur tasted like a combination of gin and Fernet-Branca, another Italian digestif: Resinous, herbal, a little syrupy but very warming, very happy.
So I did a little research. What’s in mirto? Apparently, not much beyond myrtle berries and either honey or syrup. Huh. I could do that, I thought. It wouldn’t be too different from my elderberry liqueur, only with myrtle berries. But how would I find this mystical plant?
Myrtle is not the crape myrtle you may be thinking of. Myrtus Communis is “true” myrtle, and it is native to the Mediterranean. Mirto is made from its berries, and there is another drink called mirto bianco made from the flowers. Several years ago I tried to find myrtle — lots of Mediterranean recipes use myrtle’s aromatic leaves and twigs to flavor grilled meats — but had failed.
Apparently I didn’t look hard enough. No one at the nurseries I’d visited knew anything about a “myrtle bush” other than the crape myrtle. But when I thought to ask fort “myrtus communis,” they all said, “Oh yeah, we got that. It’s used for hedges.” Score! So I bought a bush. But by then the rains had stopped for the summer and, although I tried, my little myrtle bush died. Wah.
Then, one day, while I was at my friend Elise’s parent’s house, I noticed something. Something huge. “Holy shit! That’s a gigantic fucking myrtle bush!” Sorry for the language, but the myrtle bush alongside their house was 12 feet tall and easily 18 feet wide. And covered with blossoms. This bush wouldn’t die, and as I watched the blossoms turn into green berries, and the green berries turn into purple-black berries, I grew anxious.
Last week I couldn’t wait any longer. I shanghaied Elise and her dad into picking myrtle berries, and soon I had several quarts — enough to make a batch for her, for me, and for my friend Scott at Sausage Debauchery; he said he’d kill me if I didn’t make some for him, and Scott’s a gigantic New York City cop, so I do what he says…
All I’m doing is filling quart mason jars two-thirds full with myrtle berries, then pouring over 100 proof vodka — I like 100 proof because a) I am a well-known boozehound, and b) you get better extraction of an herb’s flavors with the higher alcohol content. Why not use Everclear? I suppose I could, but I’d like to drink this stuff eventually without going blind.
I’ll let my mirto steep until Christmas, then strain it and sweeten it with honey. It should make a wonderful after-dinner drink on those cold winter nights.